Pakistan has long come under fire for having too few schools and universities. A project to improve the higher education sector with international cooperation under former President Musharraf has been put on the backburner in the light of global financial crisis and government change.
Many children whose parents cannot afford school fees go to Koran schools, which are free
165 million people live in Pakistan today. 85 million -- that’s one in two -- are under 19. They are Pakistan’s future and yet very few of them have access to education, which is not a state priority. In the past five decades, only 2 percent of Pakistan’s GDP has gone to education. 30 percent had gone to defence.
Irshad Haqqani has worked as a teacher for 50 years. He says that education reforms are bitterly necessary to encourage free thought: “In our colleges and universities there are books, which were written 50 or 60 years back. Every institution is a backward institution -- there is no progressive teaching, no progressive thinking, no free debate.”
“I am really ashamed that in my country students don’t ask many questions from the teachers, because they are not encouraged and teachers are not well-versed mostly. They are not ready to counter critical questions.”
Haqqani also says it is a problem that poorer people cannot afford to pay the school fees for their children. Instead, they send them to Koran schools, or madrasas, which are free but do not give a well-rounded education to children.
Modernising higher education
Under some pressure from the West, President Musharraf decided to modernise the education system.
He decided to create computer networks between institutes of higher education, as well as offer more grants and develop research programmes. The most ambitious aspects of this project involved building new institutes of higher education with foreign support.
Ata ur Rahman, the head of the Higher Education Commission, says the project is still crucial today: “This is a very important initiative, because it will bring together persons of all parts of life in Pakistan and provide good-quality education and expose Pakistani students to the international arena, so it will internationalize higher education and will, therefore, be an important step forward for Pakistan.”
2000% increase in education budget
Over six years, the education budget has increased by 2,000 percent, says Ata ur Rahman. He is very enthusiastic about one project in particular: “One very exciting project that we are planning to start next year is the establishment of the Pakistan German University in Lahore. And this university will cost about 600 million US dollars, it will be in the area of different branches or sciences in engineering.”
Construction was supposed to start this year but it was postponed after the change of government. Since the Pakistan People’s Party’s ascent to power in the March elections, the higher education budget has been cut and the number of international partnerships has been reduced.
Some say the reasons are political; others blame the catastrophic financial state that Pakistan is currently in. As energy and food prices rise, Pakistan is on the verge of bankruptcy.
Education experts in Pakistan have urged the West not to leave Pakistan in the lurch and to provide money and pressure so that Islamabad continues with the higher education initiative.
Otherwise, they fear that the general perception might be that the West was more willing to work with President Musharraf’s authoritarian regime than with the current government.